Are You Projecting Your Post Divorce Emotions onto Your Child?

How people treat you is their karma; how your react is yours.

Wayne Dyer

People long to be in relationships. The idea of being alone versus being in a loving relationship is enough to encourage even the coldest of hearts to take the blind leap of faith into the uncharted territory of human relationships. Let’s face it, love is not just an emotion, it’s a journey. While we may be blinded by the incredible feelings associated with love during its initial phase, as it matures, we quickly get to know the hard work that is needed to keep two people content within their relationship. While love is the greatest emotion we will ever undertake, it also comes with a price.

The rewards and consequences of love occur on a grand scale. It teaches us how to fully partake in our personal life journey, while also showing us ways be compassionate and empathic of others. Love assures our personal development by teaching us how to work and grow in relationships to others. It’s no wonder, that when love is lost, and a heart is broken, we become enslaved to a number negative emotional states commonly associated with the grieving process.

The loss of love triggers emotional grieving in an amplified state. Dependent on the time spent within relationship and the attachment level present, love-loss can cause melancholy for some and downright anger, depression, and feelings of jealousy, envy, and hatred for others. These are common to grief process, but unlike the grief common to loosing someone to death, when love is lost, no sense of finality is present. When a relationship endsthe parties must face, negotiate, and work through the very difficulties they oftentimes found impossible to work through while they were together. This initiates such emotional states as confusion, fear, anger, and sadness. While these feelings also exist independently of love,  the loss of love serves to heighten their presence.

Love-loss is hard for all parties involved. This is especially true for children, who must make sense of their new home environment in light of the loss of one parent. During the grieving process, emotions undergo highly amplified states. Anger can turn to jealousy, hatred, or even vengeance, and it is not uncommon for heated arguments, fights, splitting, violence, or other highly negative reactions to occur during a break-up. While these emotions may appear negative in scope, they ultimately help a person to integrate, accept, and move on from their loss. It is through grief that a person acquires the self-knowledge and self-love to re-engage in relationships with others. While grief promotes psychological health, if the negative emotional states are projected by one or both parents onto their children, it will greatly affect their capacity to integrate, accept, and move on from the effects the divorce or relationship break has on their psychological development. It is in these circumstances that roles reverse, and the parent’s seek solace from their children to handle unwanted feelings they are incapable or resistant to face.

It is normal to seek solace during times of discomfort. The saying “misery loves company” is a testament to the fact that we seek comfort from relationships, even during times of when relationships have caused psychological despair. However, in times of grief, especially as it relates to the loss of love, it is important to differentiate between those you must help to realize their emotional state (your children), those you can count on (your friends), and the one you need to focus on most (yourself) to help you work through the tough times that follow separation. It is imperative to form your emotional support team, so that you can vent your frustrations, fears, and longings onto people that will be in support of you, not those that are dependent upon you. If you are strong, your children will learn to be strong in the face of negative emotional states.

In divorce, emotions are rampant. So, in order not to project your emotions onto the one’s you love, it is important to understand the emotional environment that accompanies love, so that we can become explorers of and not slaves to the volatile emtional reactions love-loss can cause.

Love is a primary emotion. In fact, many other feelings such as fear, anger, sadness, and happiness make up the emotional experience of love. For example, fear as an emotion is also primary. At its root, fear keeps us safe by triggering the fight or flight response. It affects us at the physical and the emotional level, by constricting physical and mental processes to a point of hypertension and hyperawareness. Although the cause of fear differs amongst individuals, the outcome of its effects are universal: fight, flight, or freeze (emotional / physical paralysis). While fear is an independent primary emotion that keeps us safe, its effect is also found within the emotional repertoire of love.

Self love, preservation, and fear of loss (either of self or other) elicits fear to arise. Fear can be seen as a negative emotion, but it also has positive qualities. At its root, fear keeps us alive, so we can self-preserve, which in turn allows us the luxury of feeling the many other emotional states love elicits. Without fear, we simply would not be alive long enough to undertake the life journey love fosters.

The same is true with anger. Any person facing a divorce or a break in a relationship knows that anger is a potent emotion that must be dealt with. At its root lies the fear of loss and fear of the unknown. These fears, in turn, prepare us to act in a manner that is self-preserving. Because of this, anger is a primary defense mechanism that keeps us safe from scenarios that we perceive will cause more emotional distress. In order  to avoid projecting anger, we must learn ways to control this emotional state so that we may spare others from suffering in its path. Even though anger may seem like a negative emotion, at its root is love.

Whether love for self or love for other, we would not display anger if we did not have an emotional tie to that which angered us. This emotional tie is love. Whatever angers us, whether it be a topic that causes disgust, the actions of another that has bothers you, or an aspect of yourself that you simply are angry about, anger could not exist if you are indifferent about that which angers you. From this perspective, the opposite of love is not hate, instead it is indifference, which is the state most commonly associated with acceptance.

Sadness is no different. When faced with loss, anger and sadness ebbs and flows. They amplify one another, providing a means for us to make sense of what has happened. Love is also a cause of sadness. When we loose something, we grieve. The grieving process is nothing more than a series of emotions tied to love. Fear of loss, anger at that which we have lost, and sadness for the time spent and the time we will no longer have with the person that we have lost drives the storyline underlying sadness and the grieving process. Sadness is simply anger’s capacity to turn inward, once the object that has angered you is gone. Sadness allows us to take moral inventory. From this perspective, we can reflect upon the lessons needed to be learned, so that we can make sense of and move on with our personal development outside of the relationship. Being such, sadness is also the last emotion common to the grieving process, and once it is worked through, acceptance, happiness, and the capacity to move on with life can be achieved.

The final emotion associated with love is happiness. This elusive, yet necessary emotion drives the journey we undertake to fulfill personal and relational dreams. Everyone chases happiness, yet they rarely take the time to see those elements that exist in their life that promote its presence. Look beside you. Even though you may have lost an aspect of your love (the person you chose to be with), your children remain a physical representation of your love’s creative capacity. Although your happiness must take into account that which you already have, not what you long to have back in your life, it is imperative to know that your happiness cannot be dependent on your children.

An inherent danger during the early phase of separation exists in the emotional reactions a break in the relationship will cause. In most cases, one or both parties have become complacent in their relationship. Because of this complacency, one party is usually taken off guard about the intentions and actions of the other. When this happens, the emotional void present from the love-loss is often filled by a need to project loving energy towards a third party. In many cases, the recipient of the projected emotional states, good and bad, are the children of the newly broken relationship. This type of behavior can cause a relational rift to develop between the child and the other parent. If one or either parent buys for the attention of the child, it can cause stress on the other parental relationship, placing the child in a position of power over the broken parental dyad. In the case of marital dissolution, it is this dynamic that oftentimes underlies heated child-custody debates, where ultimately the child ends up in charge of their destiny, playing one parent against the other, bringing the court into the wake of these childlike dynamics. Children must be allowed to grieve their parents divorce on their own terms, draw conclusions about what happened via a storyline both parents can agree upon, and be maintained within an environment that fosters open communication. This fosters an environment where a child can make sense of the independent relationship they wish to pursue with both parents, freeing them from emotional reactions one or either parent my have against the other.

Children face a number of torrential emotions post divorce. However, children are dependent upon their parents to help them make sense of their emotional state, and not vice-versa. Children learn how to cope with emotions through emulation of behaviors and habits their parents show them. If a parent relies on their children for emotional support, or try to over-extend the boundaries of parenthood to be inclusive of friendship, the consequences can be staggering. You cannot make up for your divorce by buying your child’s love. Instead, this form of behavior teaches the child to suppress emotional health through materialism, or even worse, abdicates parental responsibility for the emotional health of your child onto a person that has yet to attain the emotional maturity needed to handle the painful emotions that follow love loss.

As adults, you have experience with emotional states. You may have had multiple attempts at love, before you found mister or misses right, and even though this relationship has also been unsuccessful, you know the heartbreak that accompanies a love that is lost. Your children have yet experienced this heartache, and oftentimes know nothing about the grieving process. It is up to you, to help them make sense of their emotions, without projecting your own onto them, especially as it relates to the fears, anger, sadness, and self reflective memories you likely hold in response to the love is lost.

During separation and divorce, your children will also feel fear, anger, sadness, and even moments of happiness as they grieve the loss of their family relationship. YOU ARE A PART OF THIS, even though you are not the only party that caused this grief. At best, your child will be able to see that fault lies with both parties. Even if it was only one party that initiated the separation, remember, it takes to two to tango, especially within the tenets of a relationship. At worst, a child may feel to blame, as they attempt to make sense of the love-loss they feel because of absence of one or both parents they face. While tending to one’s emotional state is hard work, don’t project the feelings you have regarding your child’s other half onto them. No matter what the status of your relationship, that person is still a parent to your child, and even though you may have separated, they will remain a person of influence for the rest of their life. Furthermore, your child will determine the relationship they wish to have with you and their other parent, regardless of the barriers you or a court may impose. Children yearn for the love of both parents, and any barrier  imposed by a third party will ultimately have repercussions on the person imposing that barrier, even if it is created by one parent or by orders of a court. If you can, work with your spouse, learn ways to communicate with one another that removes the barriers you once had while together, and you may just be able to help your child overcome the adversities divorce causes to their psychological health, heal from the experience, and move on with their life.

If you are undergoing a divorce, you may need help. If you feel on edge, fearful, angered, or sad, it is part of a grieving process. Remember, you need to be in control of your emotional state so your children can learn ways to control their emotional states. It is from you that your children learn to deal with both wanted and unwanted emotions. Furthermore, it during these bad times that your children will turn to you most in order to  make sense of what has occurred. This brings a sense of continuity to their lives, knowing that they can at least turn to one parent for sound, non-judgmental advice. This differs greatly from a perspective or projecting one’s negative emotions about your significant other onto your child, which will have numerous repercussions on the individual relationship you have with your child. Remember, children learn to handle emotional distress through the relationships they form with their parents, and not vice-versa. If you are projecting unwanted emotions regarding your ex onto your children, be mindful and stop. This is dangerous ground. Be aware that this can cause later consequences for your children’s psychological wellbeing, especially in learning maladaptive patterns in how to relate with others in a loving and effective manner.

While their is no easy answer when undergoing divorce, realize there are lessons to learn and ways to make sense of your life’s journey. If you are able to show resilience in overcoming the emotional torrents associated with the break-up and divorce process, your children will be all the better. In a positive sense, the emotional reactions a break up elicits can stand as a testament for you and your children to learn effective ways to overcome emotional distress, grieve the loss of the relationship you once found important, and learn ways reengage the life, dreams, and aspiration you see most fitting. The choice is yours. Determine the path, focus, and watch it unfold.

Dr. Tom